Afro-Punk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience

Photo of Honeychild by Karen Levitt.

We build cultural identities to survive, fit in, feel comfort. But as James Spooner’s film Afro-Punk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience explores, a subculture exists in which African-American youth embrace the underground punk scene as a cultural identity base— a choice that at first glance seems like an odd marriage. In an age when the majority of African-American kids embrace hip-hop and R&B as the holy grails of cultural identity, black kids who immerse themselves in the mohawks, piercings, combat boots, and spiked hair of the punk scene might seem to have strayed from their racial persona. Punk rock, after all, is a culture made up almost exclusively of white, suburban youths. Afro-Punk attacks this cultural dichotomy head on, investigating the issues concerning race and alienation dredged up by an exploration of punk culture.

The film is comprised of interviews conducted with young adults across the urban American diaspora who have been immersed in alternative cultures and wrestled with the social dislocation resulting from being black and embracing a punk rock ethos. Mostly, Afro-Punk centers on the lives of four personalities: activist and front man for the hardcore band Cipher, Moe Mitchell, southern California DJ Mariko Jonez, musician Matt Davis, and Mohawk-sporting, much-pierced rocker Tamar Kali. Director Spooner follows this cast of characters through their day-to-day lives. These stories are interspersed with interviews with U.S. black punk rockers, some with a level of renowned fame— among them Angelo Moore from Fishbone, D.H. Peligro of the Dead Kennedys, Chaka Malik of Burn/Orange 9mm, and Carley of Candiria.

Many of the interview subjects put forth compelling, intellectually complex theories as to why many of the ideals that define the punk and alternative ethic are especially suitable to African-American youths: If punk rock is about being an outsider, who is more of an outsider in American culture than a person of color? One might shed a mohawk, take out facial piercings and recolor your hair— but one can never shed the otherness of the pigment of skin.

Moe Mitchell, a graduate of Howard University, heads Cipher, a band otherwise comprised solely of white musicians. The band’s music is as hard as anything this side of Black Flagg or Agnostic Front, and their audiences at their underground hardcore shows are exclusively white. Mitchell acknowledges the oddity of a black man leading a band backed by white musicians playing to white audiences who can barely make out what he is singing, not to mention process it, or care. Still he claims faith in the integrity of his cause: to enlighten those ignorant of, and perhaps most in need of understanding, the plight of African-Americans.

Some of the individuals in Afro-Punk betray almost a desperation in attempting to explain their relation to their African-American selves in the midst of an overwhelmingly white punk culture. Hearing their musings makes one intensely aware of W.E.B. Dubois’s notion in The Souls of Black Folk of an African-American "veil," a double consciousness that finds blacks living in two worlds, two Americas, necessitating two different faces— one vastly personal and culturally centric, and the other to keep sane within the "white" world.

Mariko Jonez, a DJ from southern California who runs her own music newsletter, seems especially tortured by her identity as an African-American woman. Worried about how she seems only to date white men, she confesses to a frustration with the definition of being a black woman. Many in Afro-Punk own up to being uncomfortable with the lack of opportunities to date other African-Americans in the punk scene and the sometimes sense of token "otherness" they feel in their relationships with those around them. They complain about the limited parameters in which "blackness" is defined in American culture, and even amongst blacks themselves.

Tamar Kali relates how a number of the facets of culture she discovered through punk— piercings, tattoos, spiked hair— were really sources of her true African and Native American roots. Numerous instances in the history of music and culture that on its face stemmed from mass culture indeed had a genesis in cultures of people of color.

Afro-Punk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience explores racial identity within the punk scene, the mechanics of youth alienation, and the construct and maintenance of subcultures. Almost everyone in the film idolizes the legendary black punk band Bad Brains, cited no less than a dozen times as role models. Mid-’80s footage of the band performing onstage to an all-white audience exhibits the passion and fury that drew many of the film’s protagonists to the punk scene in the first place. One woman speaks of discovering the visceral joys of slam dancing— its ferocity seemed to get at an essence, fury, and passion. "Or maybe it’s a love of pain thing." she muses.

It is a fascinating film.

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